Meriden, West Midlands
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The traditional centre of England
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Meriden is a village and civil parish in the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull, West Midlands, England. Historically part of Warwickshire, Meriden lies between the cities of Birmingham and Coventry, in a green belt of countryside known as the Meriden Gap; it is in the ecclesiastical parish of the Diocese of Coventry. The village is 7 miles from Solihull, 8 miles from Coventry and 4 miles from Birmingham Airport. Known as Alspath in the 1086 Domesday Book, it was historically thought to be the geographical centre of England until the early 2000s after analysis by Ordnance Survey. This is commemorated in the village with the Sandstone Monument; it is also home to the National Cyclists War Memorial.
The village gives its name to the Meriden parliamentary constituency, created in 1955, which covers the Meriden Gap. In the 2011 Census the population of the Meriden parish was 2,719  and is estimated to have risen to 3,096 by 2017.
Traditional centre of England
Meriden is traditionally regarded as the Centre of England. This understanding was clearly understood by 1829 and was only shown to be inaccurate in 1920, when the first attempt was made to validate the claim systematically.
A grade II listed sandstone monument on the village green carries a plaque commemorating this. Traditionally known as the 'sandstone cross', a photograph from 1879 shows a garland (looking like a flowerpot), that would have originally enclosed a cross, on top of the monument, like the one at Hockwold cum Wilton. The garland was lost between 1879 and 1885. The cross was originally located in the old centre of the village, near the Pool, where the road originally came in from Berkswell. It was not far from the road's amended route, after 1785, when the junction was straightened due to Meriden Hall and grounds being Enclosure by its landowners. The monument was moved to the village green in 1822. It was moved again to its current position on the green in 1952–1953.
National Cyclists Memorial
Meriden is home to a memorial obelisk dedicated to the cyclists who died in the First World War. National cycling organisations commemorate these deaths every year with a service held on the green in mid-May. The 30-foot (9.1 m) grey granite memorial originally cost £1,100 and was unveiled on 21 May 1921 in the presence of over 20,000 cyclists.
The village's own war memorial is at the Berkswell Road turn-off from the Meriden main road opposite the Pool. It takes the form of a wayside shrine with a crucified Jesus; and is on land donated by Letitia Banks, heiress of Meriden Hall and wife of Capt Edward Banks, from the very corner of her estate. Edward Banks was the first WWI death from the village, due to friendly fire during the fighting at St Julien in 1915; and he is commemorated in a stained glass window in the church.
The area has been occupied since the stone age, evidenced by flints in the Blythe valley. In Meriden, bronze age swords have been found. In 43 AD, nearby Corley Rocks marked the southern limit of the cattle rearing Cornovii tribe.
The original name of the village itself was Alspath, meaning in Old English "Aelle's path". The village was centred on the site of the parish church, overlooking the current village, at the Coventry end of Meriden.
Alspath is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as the property of Godiva, the former Countess of Mercia. For the first couple of hundred years after the conquest, the whole area was the Forest of Arden. The importance of the hilltop location of Alspath as the hub of the village declined as the "king's highway" main route from London to Chester and Holyhead developed – in turn encouraging the development of Meriden. The name 'Meriden' derives from the Old English myrge, pleasant, and denu, valley. Over the period from 15th to 17th centuries the name 'Meriden' is used together with and then gradually supplants that of Alspath as the straggling settlement at the foot of the hill takes over in importance.
In the late 11th century, the village was small and impoverished, with a population of only nine families (45 persons). The first mention of it as a separate hamlet only comes in 1230 – 15 years after King John sealed Magna Carta. By the time of Edward I (1272–1307) there was a thriving community 'worth encouraging' in the eyes of the Lord of Alspath. Historically, the community was always poor (up until the late 20th century); but by the reign of Henry VIII the village was becoming more substantial. At that time it stretched from the foot of Meriden Hill to where the Bull's Head is now. Ogilivy's Traveller's Guide Book in 1675 describes Meriden as "……. A scattering village consisting chiefly of inns”. By 1686 the population grew to 290 people; and by 1772 there were 93 cottages and houses. In 1811 the village had 152 homes, 171 families and 817 people."
The Pool at the centre of the old village was where cattle were watered as part of Meriden's role as a local distribution point for the 16th century droving trade. They would rest here before carrying on in one of two directions: to the cattle pens at the top of Meriden Hill for the Coventry cattle market and at the top of the first hill on the road out of Meriden towards the cattle market then held in Berkswell.
The path of the London-Chester/Holyhead road gained strategic and commercial importance over time. The section which ran through Coventry to the bottom of Meriden Hill was improved in 1723 when it was one of the first ones to be made into a [[Turnpike trusts |turnpike]]. Maintenance of the turnpike was, however, poor and in 1810, Thomas Telford renovated the whole route to Holyhead, including lowering Meriden Hill, thus bypassing the Queen's Head Pub and the "Old Road". This 'Telford road' remained the main Coventry to Birmingham Road until 1958, when the village was bypassed by the A45 dual carriageway. The old, narrow road past the Queen's Head is the site of the pre-Telford turnpike.
The shape of the current centre of the village, around the green, was another product of Enclosure post-1785. Whilst previously the west-end of the village had merely been the meeting place of lanes coming in to the main London-Chester road from Fillongley, Maxstoke and Packington; the ultimate shape was completed with another Enclosure provision "staking out a new road to Hampton-in-Arden across the Heath".
Manor and Overlordship
Following the Norman Conquest, the overlordship of Alspath/Meriden passed successively through the hands of the Earls of Chester (1080), the Segrave family (1220), the Mowbray Earls of Norfolk (late 14th century), the Standley Earls of Derby (1468/1501), and the Earls of Aylesford (1784). Of the Lords of the Manor, owing fealty to those overlords, there are two in particular who contributed to events in English history or to the parish church. The first was Ivo of Alspath, the first Norman holder of the Knight's fee that was Alspath/Meriden. He took his name from the village. Under the overlordship of the Earl of Chester, he built the core of the current church of St Laurence (circa 1150) for reasons covered below. After his death the manor was split into four parts amongst his daughters:
- A manor based on the original siting, around the church and occupied since 1481 by the building of Moat House farm.
- The manor of Alspath Hall, the remains of which are sited in a field off the access to the A45 from Showell Lane.
- A manor that became the property of Meriden Hall.
- The building and land known as Walsh Hall (formerly and alternately as Wyard's Place).
- The fifth subdivision (Marbrook Hall) near Hollyberry End, near the junction of Shaft Lane and Becks Lane, is now considered a later claim.
The second was Gerard (or Gerald) II of Alspath (d. 1282). He was involved with the escape from the Tower of London of Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March. His wife Millicent gave the name to what is now known as Millisons Wood, at the far east end of the village, at the top of Meriden Hill.
Meriden/Alspath has never itself been a significant location in English and British history. It is however located within a narrow band of castles with significant historical interest. Three miles to the north is Maxstoke Castle – one of the three seats of the Stafford Dukes of Buckingham in the mid to late 15th century and deemed to be a favourite residences of Lady Margaret Beaufort after her second marriage into the Stafford family (mother of King Henry VII, paternal grandmother of King Henry VIII of England, a key figure in the Wars of the Roses and an influential matriarch of the House of Tudor). Eight miles south is Kenilworth Castle – site of the longest siege in English history; and 15 miles south is Warwick Castle – the seat of 'Warwick the Kingmaker'. Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick who was one of the most influential figure of the Wars of the Roses.
One of only two escapes from the Tower of London in its history – the powerful Marcher lord, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March who was imprisoned in 1322 by King Edward II – involves a critical Meriden/Alspath connection. Mortimer's escape to France in 1323; his return with an army and with Edward's Queen Consort, Isabella, to overthrow Edward; and his subsequent role in the lurid death of the king are well-known elements of English history. Of concern to Meriden, however, is the fact that the Constable (Stephen Segrave) and the Deputy Constable of the Tower (Gerard Alspath) – see previous section for both – were Overlord and Lord of the Manor of Meriden/Alspath respectively. Gerard was certainly implicated in the escape ; but Segrave escaped the initial reprisal, as described by the 14th century chronicler Henry Knighton  from Leicester's St Mary de Pre Abbey, Leicester: listing Stephen's excuse being that he had been duped: “declaring, 'ipse seductus fuit per quendum vallettum suum.....' i.e. by a supposedly loyal servant in whom he had confidence........, and that this man was Girard Alspathe. or the alternative spelling of Gerard Alspaye, Of further note is the fact that one of the people assisting in the escape was a progenitor of John Wyard of what is now Walsh Hall and whose effigy resides in the parish church.
After his death in 1460 at the Battle of Northampton, during the early years of the Wars of the Roses, an 'inquisition post-mortem' was held in Alspath to determine the heirs and liabilities for the estates of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham, the previous owner of Maxstoke Castle.
When Bonnie Prince Charlie marched south in the last of the great Jacobite rebellions in 1745, the government forces, recalled from the continent and assembled to oppose him, waited on Meriden Heath, under the command of the Duke of Cumberland.
St Laurence Parish Church
The parish church of St. Laurence was built on the site of a simple Saxon church, dedicated to St Edmund, erected on her own land by Lady Godiva – the wife of Leofric Earl of Mercia in the years prior to the Norman conquest.
The present church was built in several stages. The nave and two-thirds of the chancel were finished by the late 12th century – late Norman – and were probably built as an expiation for sins committed during the civil war between Stephen & Matilda by Ivo de Alspath. St Mary's Priory, Coventry and the Benedictine Priory at Monk's Kirby near Rugby being two notable target of his overlord, the Earl of Chester's, raiding parties – the earl having remained aloof from taking sides and instead forming marauding bands to raid, pillage and to pocket taxes crown taxes.
The chancel was extended in the 13th century, and the south aisle and the tower were added in the late 14th. The north aisle was added, and Norman roof was replaced in the 15th century.
Around 1831, both aisles were demolished and rebuilt with galleries to provide more space for the congregation. It is possible see the industrial quality of the stonework outside the building compared to the 14th or 15th century stone used inside. A few gravestones have been used in the external stonework.
In 1883, the church was restored again, and those galleries were removed. At some point the 15th century wooden ceilings of both nave and chancel had been plastered over, and these were uncovered during a restoration in 1924. Finally, extensive restorations of the medieval roof and tower were carried out circa 2006–10.
The current siting of alabaster effigies in the church is of 20th-century origin. There are pictures of an earlier 19th century siting in the centre of the nave. To the right, where his chantry was located is John Wyard – a late 14th century man at arms (never knighted) who was part of the retinue for the then Beauchamp Earl of Warwick. The effigy to the left represents Sir Thomas Bottiler who died at the Battle of Northampton (at the same time as the 1st Duke of Buckingham – see earlier).
The Saint Laurence/Lawrence (spelling interchangeable) to whom the church is dedicated may be either Lawrence of Rome who was one of the seven deacons of the early church martyred during the persecution of Emperor Valerian in 258 AD; or it may have been Laurence of Canterbury who became the second Archbishop of Canterbury in 604 AD. Legend favours the latter, although, from 1318 onwards, the choice of 10 August for the Patronal feast day and the village fair (until 1959) would indicate the Roman Lawrence.
From 1941 until 1983, Meriden was associated with the large Triumph motorcycles production plant, whose original Priory Street factory in Coventry was earlier destroyed by the Luftwaffe during World War II; although in fact the factory was situated just over the parish boundary and out of Meriden. The boundary was not moved until ten years after the factory was demolished.
As documented in the book Forty Summers Ago, the factory was visited by Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins with the rest of the 1964 U.S. International Six Day Trials team to collect their specially prepared Triumphs.
In 1973, Triumph workers blockaded the factory from the new owners, NVT, to prevent closure. The government loaned the subsequent Meriden Workers Co-Operative money to buy the factory and later to market the Triumph motorcycles they produced. The sit-in and formation of the co-operative were the subject of much media interest including David Edgar's play, Events Following The Closure Of A Motorcycle Factory. Trading later as Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd., the co-operative eventually closed in August 1983, the factory being demolished the following year. A new company, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd was established in 1984, and moved to Hinckley, Leicestershire, in 1988.
A housing estate has been built on the site of the Triumph motorcycle factory at Meriden - now known as Millisons Wood, up the hill out of the main village. Road names on the estate include Triumph motorcycle model names Bonneville Close and Daytona Drive. A plaque commemorating the site's former use stands outside Bonneville Close.
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